You’ve Published Open Data…Now What?

October 19, 2015 7:00 am PST | Data as a Service

The open data movement is in transition. Over the past decade, the public sector has dramatically increased the quantity and regularity with which it publishes open data. Legislation at the federal and local levels suggests that open data is here to stay.

But, if we have grander ambitions for open data — to engage residents and transform the democratic process, to make more informed decisions, and to improve the quality of life in our communities — how can we make this happen? And if we envision open data innovations emerging from strategic collaboration between the public sector, private sector, and stakeholders, who will do this work?

As the Founder and CEO of Open Data Nation, I consult civic administrators and technologists about how to educate, empower, and engage open data users. In these conversations, we ask “You’ve published open data, now what?”

The following five responses emerge consistently from governments at the progressive edge of the open data movement:

  1. Prepare employees to contribute
  2. Tell others about your open data
  3. Incorporate what you have learned
  4. Teach and hire data-minded employees, and
  5. Evaluate data for insights

In this week’s post, I’ll explore these first two responses — stay tuned for an upcoming blog post that will delve into the remaining three next steps to take after publishing open data. 

1. Prepare Employees to Contribute

While the physical infrastructure of an open data portal may enable the distribution of data, it takes establishing an ecosystem of sharing and a culture of transparency to grow the number and quality of datasets being shared. Convincing and motivating employees to transition and adopt new processes for publishing data is an essential step towards a sustainable, local open data initiative.

Recognizing the need to engage employees with their open data portal, Numbers for Development, the open data portal published by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) — the largest source of development financing for Latin America and the Caribbean — started using open data at work to resolve questions on:

  • What are employees’ doubts about publishing data?
  • Can we clarify the process and challenges of opening data?
  • Can we show employees that publishing data can help save money?
  • Does expanded employee access to librarians and on-site resources increase internal knowledge and adoption?

In mid-2015, IDB and Open Data Nation launched an on-site event, “Speed Data-ing.” “Speed Data-ing” is a concept born out of speed-dating; but in IDB’s case, the event provided a structured environment for IDB employees to exchange knowledge about the data they use. By coaching employees within the Bank to contribute to an open data portal, the IDB raised interest in participation, simplified the process of sharing information, and established a sound foundation from a sustained open data effort.

2. Tell Others About Your Data

Like a book that never gets checked out of the library, many open datasets are hidden away and viewed less than 200 times per year. Even worse, for those who are publishing open data for the first time, the public may lack knowledge that a library of open data exists or where to find it. Raising the visibility of data will get more people with different skills and interests interacting with information, but telling press-worthy stories with data requires additional effort and savvy communicators.

In the fall of 2014, the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, prepared to launch their first-ever open data portal. They wanted to know:

  • How do we communicate to audiences about a new data portal?
  • Who do we tell about the open data portal?
  • Can we use the portal to invite marginalized voices into the fold?
  • Can we build momentum for open data policies and legislation?

Over the winter of 2014, Cambridge partnered with Open Data Nation to host a civic challenge competition, a custom event that invited residents to apply their local knowledge and combine it with open data. The city provided the data — three years of information on the time and location of traffic crashes involving drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists — and Open Data Nation set out to raise visibility and awareness of the portal and its data assets.

By the end of 2014, our communications strategy increased views of crash data by 1900 percent, making it the most viewed data on the portal in 2014. The civic challenge competition crowdsourced the development of eight open data enabled products, including visualizations and web applications, from a range of participants including MIT engineers to area public high school students. And a workshop event, bringing together policymakers and residents, was featured in Boston Globe, BetaBoston, and BostInno stories, amplifying the impact of the Challenge well beyond Cambridge city limits.


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